Home & Garden

Don’t make ‘unfreeze my pipes’ your 2017 resolution

It’s hard to tell what’s going to burst on the scene in 2017.

Let’s hope it’s not your pipes.

Water damage is the leading expense for home damage. It has the ability to demolish the interior of a house.

Though temperatures in Central Kentucky are fairly mild now, it is winter and colder days are likely ahead. Understanding how and why pipes freeze — and how to prevent it — can help in the days ahead.

As water turns into ice, it expands. It has no choice. It’s just obeying the laws of physics.

But when ice runs out of room, like say in a closed pipe, it bursts out. Even metal pipes will succumb if the pressure is great enough.

Often, the problem isn’t noticed until the pipes thaw and water begins to flow again.

Underground pipes rarely have freezing problems because the earth acts as insulator. And pipes inside heated homes are usually not a problem, either.

It’s that in between zone, when pipes leave the ground but before they enter a heated space, where bursting is most likely to occur.

Prevent the freeze

Prevention is key, said plumber Jason Hunt, the owner of Hunt Services of Tacoma, Wash.

“There’s nothing a plumber can do with a frozen pipe,” Hunt said.

But many of Hunt’s clients don’t know at first that they have a burst pipe.

“It’s typically after the cold is over, when they thaw out,” he said.

If a homeowner is unfamiliar with their plumbing system, doesn’t know where the main water valve is and other essentials Hunt suggests calling a plumber for a preventive inspection.

But with the clock ticking and the thermometer plummeting, there’s still time for a homeowner to take action on their own.

First, look for lines running into your home and in unheated spaces: attics, crawl spaces, garages, sheds, uninsulated walls.

Wrap exposed pipes in foam insulation. Home improvement stores sell the material already shaped for pipes. Zip ties can help.

Outdoor water faucets should be winterized: Disconnect hoses, shroud faucets with a foam cover. New faucets are designed to drain themselves, Hunt said. But if a hose is attached, that safeguard might be thwarted.

If you have an auxiliary system, like for a garden, turn the water off at its source and then drain the line.

If you think your entire system is vulnerable to freezing, try keeping a faucet trickling with a steady stream, Hunt said. Moving water takes longer to freeze than still water.

Home improvement stores sell electric heating cables or “tape” that can be wrapped around pipes.

“Wrap heat tape around it first, and then you can insulate it over that,” Hunt said. “You’ll never have a problem with that.”

Unless the power goes off.

Inside your home you may want to consider leaving cabinet doors open that shield cold pipes, like below a kitchen or bathroom sink that is located against an exterior wall.

Any structure that isn’t occupied, like a vacation home or shed, should have its water shut off and lines drained. An empty pipe won’t burst.

If you do suffer a broken pipe you’ll have company.

Insurance woes

“Water damage is our number one cause of loss, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damage annually,” said Pemco Insurance spokesman Derek Wing.

For the last several years, water losses accounted for more than a third of property claims at Pemco, beating out fire, wind/weather and theft.

Though a hidden pipe may escape a homeowner’s notice, water damage is usually preventable. While insurance may cover the damage, it won’t alleviate the inconvenience.

“It’s about the hassle,” Wing said. “Nobody wants to start off the new year by calling a plumber with an emergency.”

Wing’s co-worker, Jon Osterberg, can relate.

His family has a cabin near Cle Elum. Normally they shut off the well and drain the water system on Thanksgiving weekend.

An Arctic blast in early November 2010 caught him by surprise, Osterberg said.

“Before I could drive to Cle Elum, single-digit temperatures froze our cabin’s main water pipe.”

Osterberg got a surprise when he turned the water on in March and it began spurting out of the ground.

“Hours of strenuous pick and shovel work revealed my PVC pipe had frozen and split,” Osterberg said.

Hunt said it’s not just vacation homes that are vulnerable but regular homes where the owners are on vacation.

“People go on vacation, and they turn their heat off,” Hunt said. “That’s the worst thing you can do. Turn it down, but don’t turn it off.”

A neighbor of his learned that lesson the hard way, Hunt said. He left his house unheated during a cold snap five years ago.

An upstairs pipe burst. When it thawed it started gushing at full volume.

Sheetrock peeled from walls and cabinets crashed to the floor while the owner was away.

“The whole house had to be gutted and rebuilt,” Hunt said.

Freezes and floods

During a deep freeze, fire departments can stay busy answering calls related to broken pipes, said Kyle Ohashi, a captain and public information officer with the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority.

Apartment complexes can be especially difficult. Some units sit below grade like one he responded to several years ago.

“People couldn’t get in and out,” Ohashi recalled. “They couldn’t even open their doors or three feet of water would flood their apartments.”

The first order of business at a post freeze flood is to shut off the main water valve, Ohashi said. Then fire crews will use water vacuums and sump pumps to suck up the water.

While a broken pipe doesn’t usually merit a call to 911, Ohashi doesn’t want people to hesitate calling.

“If you need help you call 911,” he said. “Sometimes people simply don’t know where to shut the water off.”